2nd – 4th April 2013 – HARLEQUIN DUCK in Paradise…

Just back from a superb few days camping on North Uist on the Western Isles. The target bird – a 1st winter drake Harlequin Duck, was quickly in the bag allowing me plenty of time to chillout with the family on this beautiful island. This long-distance twitch was totally out of character for me these days, but I’m glad that I made the effort, it was definitely up there in my top 5 of all time birding experiences. A stunning bird – a stunning location – and stunning weather. And I often had the duck all to myself as I was camping at Balranald just a short walk away. Unfortunately though I couldn’t find the Snowy Owl nearby which would’ve been a nice bonus.

But first we had to get there, and the drive up to Uig on the Isle of Skye takes you through some breathtaking scenery at this time of year…

Ben Nevis Range

Ben Nevis Range

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Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

As we drove down into Uig I spotted this White-tailed Eagle way up high…

How tiny does the Raven look!

How tiny does the Raven look!

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Uig

Uig

The hour and 45 minute ferry crossing was flat calm with just the odd Gannet, Guillemot and Tystie for company. Once onto North Uist we headed across from Lochmaddy to our destination – the RSPB reserve at Balranald….

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Our base was the idyllic campsite just beyond the visitor centre, all we could hear were birds – Twite everywhere, singing Corn Buntings, Greylags and Barnies flying over, displaying Lapwings and Oystercatchers, and at dusk and dawn a drumming Snipe right overhead!

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The beach behind the campsite

The beach behind the campsite

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Good numbers of Rock Doves were around

Good numbers of Rock Doves were around

But of course it was the Harlequin Duck that I was here for, so I left the Mrs to put up the tent (how bad am I!!) and quickly legged it down to it’s favoured area. It was further than I thought though and I was soon knackered! In the distance I could see a group of half-a-dozen birders on the beach and I headed towards them hoping that they were gonna be watching it. Thankfully they were, this was nice and easy and the fella was quickly ‘in the bag’ – the pressure was off! As I was camping just a short distance away, I walked down to watch this beauty several times, the early mornings were particularly special -with the sun rising behind me the light first thing was superb. Sometimes it was hard to find, sometimes it was very distant on the sea, and a couple of times the scope views were quite simply ‘out of this world’! Here’s a selection of my favourite images that I took of it during my stay…

Harlequin with the Monach Islands in the distance

Harlequin with the Monach Islands in the distance

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And some shots of the location…

Harlequin bay

Harlequin Bay

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The first night in the tent was much much colder than forecast – it was well below freezing and the tent and landscape was covered in a hard frost when I emerged at first light the next morning.

Overnight hard frosts at Balranald

Overnight hard frosts at Balranald

My bins and scope were also covered in a frost as I walked south along the dunes to check if the duck was still present. It was fantastic to see several Corn Buntings singing from fence posts in this area – this is a species that I’ve not seen or heard for many many years, unfortunately they seem to be extinct as a breeding bird in Cumbria now.

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Hundreds of Twite sat noisily on the wires and a flock of 50 Rock Doves flew past. As I walked over the dunes and down onto the beach I could see 7 or 8 gulls on the shore, I raised my bins and was surprised to see that one of them was an Iceland Gull – cool.

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The primaries appeared to have an obvious brownish wash to them – even in very bright light. When the bird flew it gave me the impression of being a bit on the dark side too – I managed to grab a couple of flight shots as it flew off.

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Both Iceland and Kumlien’s Gull have been reported from this area in recent weeks but I’ve never seen Kumlien’s before – I’m sure there’s plenty of gull experts out there who’ll be able to tell me what it was though… anyway it was nice to have stumbled across it so early in the day.

Great Northern Diver with the Monach Islands behind

Great Northern Diver with the Monach Islands behind

St. Kilda

St. Kilda

A little later on I got talking to a birder who’d been lucky enough to see the Snowy Owl at Sollas, but I knew from my previous visit to North Uist back in 2000 that the machair area there is huge. However the birder (who amazingly also used to live in Port Carlisle some years ago – it’s a small world ain’t it?) gave me good directions to where he’d seen it. It sounded easy enough and was definitely gonna be worth a look anyway.

I went back to the tent and my family, which were all defrosting nicely, and had some breakfast.

On our way out of Balranald I was pleased to see the female Ring-necked Duck on Loch Croghearraidh on the north side of the road. Unfortunately though it was as far away as it could be and the heat haze – yes heat haze, made taking a photo virtually impossible…

The best photo of a female Ring-necked Duck you're ever likely to see...

The best photo of a female Ring-necked Duck you’re ever likely to see…

At Sollas it was soon pretty obvious that the owl wasn’t where it had been – and annoyingly I’ve since read that birders/photographers on the Tuesday had got too close and flushed it despite it showing nicely from the track – I hope that isn’t the case but it really wouldn’t surprise me.  Anyway, here’s one I saw earlier (one of two on Lewis in March 2007)…

Bird 1 - Borve, Isle of Lewis, March 2007

Borve, Isle of Lewis, March 2007

 So we just chilled out, enjoyed a walk around and went to one of the beaches.

Vallay

Vallay

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I remembered an area from our visit in 2000 that had been good for Short-eared Owls and Hen Harrier, and with the evening sun now fantastic for photography I was hoping to get some decent photographs. Sure enough we soon saw some Shorties and this Buzzard posed nicely…

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Then I noticed a raptor sat in the heather – and as I stopped the car I could see it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. Unfortunately it flew off straight away and I could only get record shots as it disappeared into the distance…

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And all the owls seemed to be far away or heading in the wrong direction!

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Oh well, it was fantastic birding despite the lack of quality photographs. Another visit to the Harlequin later on was a nice way to end the day.

The following morning I was up early again and walked down to the Harlequin, but first I noticed 3 gulls on the beach – and this was one of them… nice start to the day again.

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The same bird as yesterday?

Once I’d found it the Harlequin gave me the best views I’d had on the trip. The light was perfect and this bird really was stunning. The sun emphasised it’s beauty. Does birding get any better than this? I was on my own, no annoying pagers bleeping, no loud voices trying to impress. This was just how I like it. It was a perfect start to the day.

Back at the tent my first Wheatear of the year was seen…

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The rest of our time on North Uist was spent doing pretty much the same – more superb birding including wonderful views of displaying Hen Harriers, fantastic walks and superb beaches and scenery. I really can’t wait to go back again…

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4 Responses to 2nd – 4th April 2013 – HARLEQUIN DUCK in Paradise…

  1. Carl Baggott says:

    Nice one Darren – you’ve set me off wanting to go back to North Uist again. My overriding memory of the island was how beautiful and chilled out it was too.

  2. Spencer Turner says:

    You lucky bugga, super bird and an even better place to spend some time. I’m packing my bag to go right now. Any tips on best places to go?

  3. Neil says:

    Once again Darren amazing blog

  4. Carl Baggott says:

    The Iceland ‘type’ Gull is certainly interesting. There appears to be a darker pigmentation on the outer primaries becoming paler on the inner ones. Also there is little contrast between the primaries and the rest of the wing. However, I believe classic 1st-winter Kumlien’s Gull generally has an all black bill. From what I can see there is divided opinion on birds like this. There’s one on Surfbirds from Yorkshire, which doesn’t convince me. Hopefully someone with a wealth of experience with these gulls can help. Great pictures all the same.

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